By Dave Skretta
AP Sports Writer
INDIANAPOLIS — Ryan Hunter-Reay admits to being biased when asked about the greatest race in Indianapolis 500 history. He also makes it clear that picking his own victory in 2014 is based more on merit than ego.
There was a red flag with seven laps to go. The lead changed just about every lap. Marco Andretti came oh-so-close to ending his family’s Indy 500 curse. And ultimately, Hunter-Reay held off Helio Castroneves — trying to join the club of four-time winners — in the second-closest finish in history.
“There’s no way 2014 isn’t in the top three,” Hunter-Reay said.
It wasn’t even in the top five — at least, not in a survey of past winners conducted by The Associated Press. They chose Al Unser Jr.’s victory over Scott Goodyear in 1992 as the greatest race.
“That,” said 1963 winner Parnelli Jones, “was kind of outstanding.”
In the lead-up to the 100th running of the “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” The Associated Press interviewed the 27 living race winners on topics ranging from the greatest driver to most memorable moment, and their answers to the greatest race in history produced five that received multiple votes:
Along with Little Al’s victory in 1992, his duel and defeat to Emerson Fittipaldi in the 1989 race; the 2006 race when Sam Hornish Jr. passed Andretti within sight of the finish; the 1982 battle between Rick Mears and Gordon Johncock; and the 2011 race won by the late Dan Wheldon.
Perhaps it was Unser’s close call three years earlier, when he touched tires with Fittipaldi and crashed with a lap to go, that made the first of Little Al’s two victories such a popular one.
The crash-filled ‘92 race came down to the final 12 laps, when Michael Andretti appeared on his way to a long-awaited win. But after leading 160 laps, and building a 28-second lead, the fuel pump in his car shut down and Andretti rolled to a stop in the short chute to bring out the caution.
The race restarted with seven laps to go, and Unser and Goodyear went toe-to-toe. Unser wobbled just a bit in the final corner, Goodyear weaved behind him down the straightaway, then dove inside as the two cars crossed the finish line in a blur — the margin of Unser’s victory was officially 0.043 seconds, closest in race history.
“Seeing him take the checkered flag was one of the greatest moments of my life,” said his father, Al Unser Sr., one of three drivers to have won four Indy 500s.
Not surprisingly, it was his son’s choice for best. It might have been Goodyear’s pick, too.
“The finish between Hornish and Andretti, it took me until then to finally get it,” said Goodyear, who helped broadcast that 2006 race for ABC. “I was taken in by it. Oh man, it was close. And it was like, ‘Now I understand how cool the end of our race was.’”
The other fantastic finishes, according to the AP survey:
Fittipaldi called the first of his two wins “without a doubt” the greatest race in history. He nearly ended up in the wall with Unser Jr. after the two touched tires, but Fittipaldi made a dramatic save and then completed the final lap under caution to win.
Michael Andretti and Marco Andretti both led in the final laps, but father faltered and son was passed by Hornish a mere 450 feet from the line in the third-closest finish in race history.
“The way he went through traffic was just incredible and that allowed him to close the gap enough,” said four-time champion Rick Mears. “That was one of the most exciting ones I’ve seen.”
Johncock and Mears spent the final 40 laps engaged in a two-man race, putting an entire lap between them and the rest of the field. Johncock wound up winning by 0.16 seconds.
“Mears was coming like a freight train and Johncock was just trying to hang on,” recalled 1969 winner Mario Andretti, who had crashed out of the race. “That was a nail-biter.”
J.R. Hildebrand hit the wall while trying to avoid slower traffic in the final turn, allowing Wheldon to sneak by for his second victory — and a stunning one for his small Panther Racing team. It was also Wheldon’s final race win. He would die in an October crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“It was crazy,” recalled 2008 winner Scott Dixon, “but the most deserving won it.”